Watching the Michael Vick saga unfold over the past month has been a typically frustrating experience, as a woman, a person of color, and dog owner (or rather "pet guardian," as they insist upon in my oh-so PC hometown, San Francisco).
The entire nasty affair points to the ways in which any national "debate" – usually conducted by talking heads, lawyers, and a couple of celebrities on TV — on race or gender in popular culture ends up mired in arguments that can at best be described as absurd, and at worst, damaging.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we can’t seem to bring ourselves to talk about, say an important issue like racism unless there is a low-life like O. J. Simpson or Michael Vick facing charges for some reprehensible crime. Is this really the ideal context for a conversation that requires open minds, compassion, awareness, and a strong desire to do right?
Then again, this is the kind of foolishness that pays for a cultural critic’s supper. Here’s my critique of the race-related interpretations made directly or indirectly in support of Michael Vick. One, his case is yet another example of a racist white media "lynching" a young black man for sins that would be more easily forgiven – or at least, less stridently covered and condemned — in a white person. This version of the Vick defense was offered up by civil rights groups such as the NAACP.
Umm, I don’t think so. I can’t imagine PETA or any of the other animal rights groups being any less outraged if Tom Brady was involved. Whatever one’s reservations about their politics, we can safely say these folks have shown little love for privileged white folks. And yes, Americans in general love their dogs, and they wouldn’t be any less appalled at their torture just because the QB in question was white.
If there is anything racist about the response to Vick, it’s the lack of surprise, as though we simply don’t expect any better from a black man. If Tom Brady or Peyton Manning had been caught doing something similar, all of America would have been shocked, shocked, shocked. How could our golden white boy ever do something like this, and so on. It’s the difference between our reaction to an inner-city school shooting and Columbine.
If that wasn’t enough, this week brought us Whoopi Goldberg, who claimed on The View that this kind of depraved behavior is part of Vick’s "cultural conditioning" is not doing any service to her community, or the rest of us. Sure, she meant the culture of the rural South, but that’s not how it’s going to be interpreted in a culture already weighed down with stereotypes about brutal, violent black men.
If a white commentator had made that comment, many of us would be rightly offended at its suggestion – intended or otherwise — that electrocuting dogs is somehow "normal" for some black folks. According to this Kansas City columnist, a number of observers are already blaming Vick’s crime on black ghetto/hip hop culture. I don’t see anyone arguing that a white athlete is a "wonderful guy" who just didn’t know using a "rape pole" to breed a dog was a bad thing. This again, should tell us something about cultural expectations.
Some of the best writing on the race angle in the Vick case comes from Atlanta-Journal Constitution columnist, Cynthia Tucker. Here is her take on why it’s a wrong-headed for black civil rights organizations to rally around the Michael Vick. And here is Tucker’s far more nuanced argument about how media coverage of the Vick case does indeed point to a racial bias of a different kind.
Finally, there’s the "unfair scrutiny" argument that deflects the issue from race to gender, as in: we get worked up about a little animal cruelty, but don’t give a damn when the same men are accused of beating the crap out of their wives. The critique about NFL’s wink-nudge attitude toward domestic violence is well-founded, but it is only undermined by any comparison to dog-fighting. I don’t know of a single athlete accused of brutally torturing and killing a number of women for fun playing professional sports.
Certainly, colleagues of any player accused of beating up his wife would hardly be eager to get on TV and sing his praises – as so many of his team-mates did before Vick pleaded guilty. NFL"s locker-room culture is infamous for its misogyny and homophobia, but even athletes (or their PR reps) know where to draw the line in public. And would Whoopi declare Vick a "wonderful guy" or blaming it on his cultural upbringing if he’d been beating his wife? I doubt it.
Bottomline, Whoopi herself is evidence that we have no problems distinguishing between animals and human beings: it is okay to kill one for food (and in many cases, even sport) and not the other. Besides, no one wins in this bizarre game of one upmanship between two equally repulsive crimes. What’s the logic: if we only would turn a blind eye to dog-fighting, we’d be cracking down harder on domestic violence? I don’t think so. And that goes for racism too. No reasonable person can think that treating Vick with greater clemency would mark a victory for race relations in this country.
To rephrase Freud, sometimes a jerk is just a jerk.